Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – If a 12th-place finish, one lap down, can ever be considered heroic, Jimmie Johnson had such a result in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion entered the race a dismal 35th in the standings after crashes in the first two races of the season, at Daytona and Atlanta.
And Sunday didn’t start on a high note. Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet failed pre-race inspection three times, costing the team the services of car chief Jesse Sauders, who was ejected from the event. Johnson started the race from the 37th position and went a lap down to race winner Kevin Harvick on Lap 34.
Throughout the race, however, Johnson was able to stay far enough ahead of Harvick to stay one lap down, notably during the long green-flag run that made up the second stage. Damage to the front end of the car also was an impediment.
But Johnson got back on the lead lap as the “lucky dog” (highest scored lapped car) under the fourth caution and salvaged the 12th-place finish. It was a small step, but a significant one.
One of the keys to Johnson’s recovery was patience—resisting the urge to overdrive the car.
“At the end of last year, and even in Atlanta, I was trying too hard,” Johnson said. “Just giving 100 percent and driving the car where it’s at and bringing it home is what I need to start doing.
“I’ve been trying to carry it, and I’ve crashed more cars in the last six months than I have really in any six month stretch or whole year stretch. (I’m) just trying to drive it 100 percent and not step over that line.”
VIOLENT WRECK WIPES OUT KURT BUSCH, CHASE ELLIOTT
Both Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott had been running in the top 10 for most of Sunday afternoon’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when Busch lost control of his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford in Turn 4 on Lap 183 of 267.
Busch’s car collected the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Chase Elliott and eliminated both vehicles from the race.
“I was running the low groove, and it just stepped out on me,” Busch explained. “I wasn’t even trying to fill the hole or go 100 percent. I had it at 90 percent, and I knew Chase was going to be on my outside and it was just that quick.
“We were back there in the dirty air, but Turn 4, I always know it is slick and I wasn’t even pushing through there and it stepped out on me. Ruined his day, ruined my day. I hate it for all the Chase Elliott fans and the Kurt Busch fans and my hometown fans.
“I wasn’t even pushing hard. I knew we had one more stop and then we were going to go. It just stepped out on me. It’s ridiculous.”
The wreck was emblematic of Busch’s struggles at his home track. He has one career top five at the 1.5-mile speedway—a third in 2005.
PAUL MENARD CONTINUES SOLID START
Paul Menard managed to stay on the lead lap with Kevin Harvick, runaway winner of Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
That in itself was a significant accomplishment for the driver of the No. 21 Woods Brothers Racing Ford, who finished ninth and is also ninth in the series standings after three races.
“It’s a bit early, but the Fords are fast coming out of the gate this year,” said Menard who moved from Richard Childress Racing to the Wood Brothers Racing team this year. “I think we’ll be good in Phoenix next week as well.
“I feel really good with where our program is at right now.”